Shedding tears often eases our sense of shock or trauma after a painful breakup. But why is the act so beneficial? And is there such a thing as a "bad cry"?
University of South Florida psychologists Jonathan Rottenberg and Lauren M. Bylsma, along with colleague Ad J.J.M. Vingerhoets of Tilburg University analysed more than 3,000 recent crying experiences (outside of lab) and found that the benefits of crying depend entirely on the what, where and when of a particular crying episode.
They found that the majority of respondents reported improvements in their mood following a bout of crying. However, a third of the participants reported no improvement in mood and a tenth felt worse after crying.
The survey also revealed that criers who received social support during their crying episode were the most likely to report improvements in mood.
Research to date has not always produced a clear picture of the benefits of crying , in part because the results often seem to depend on how crying is studied, said a Southern Florida release.
The authors note several challenges in accurately studying crying behaviour in a laboratory setting. Volunteers who cry in a lab setting often do not describe their experiences as being cathartic or making them feel better.
Rather, crying in a lab setting often results in the study participants feeling worse; this may be due to the stressful conditions of the study itself, such as being videotaped or watched by research assistants.
However, these lab studies have provided interesting findings about the physical effects of crying. Criers do show calming effects such as slower breathing, but they also experience a lot of unpleasant stress and arousal, including increased heart rate and sweating.
Research has shown that the effects of crying also depend on who is shedding the tears. For example, individuals with anxiety or mood disorders are least likely to experience the positive effects of crying.
These findings will appear in the December issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science.